Implications of Apple’s Twitter integration

Apple’s iOS 5, unveiled at WWDC last week, showcases a deep integration of Twitter in many Apple functions, which suggests that Apple anointed the company as its key supplier of social technology infrastructure. What does this mean for social media? The budding partnership could very well shake up the standings in social platforms and do some damage to Google’s attempts to spread its own social technologies, like its +1 button.

Apple is one of those companies, like Google, where one wonders if it has any real social DNA. But with Twitter, Apple acknowledges the cross-platform necessity of social communications. That’s a step in the right direction. Leading with Twitter is a smart way to pick up its pace in the social media arena.

Apple’s iOS 5 showcases Twitter integration in many Apple functions: camera, photos, the Safari browser, two Google-based apps (Maps and YouTube), contact management and unified sign-on. Apple also said third-party applications developers would be able to tap into Twitter APIs to do their own integration. Apple showed one-click tweeting for photos and link-sharing via Twitter with its usual flair for slick and easy user experiences. Oddly, Twitter is missing in both email and Apple’s iPhone music app, and Apple said nothing about integrating Twitter into its desktop OS.

Yet at the WWDC, Apple introduced a proprietary iOS-only messaging service that lacks Twitter. And it swapped out a Ping button — a link to its iTunes store–centric social network — from its mobile music app for a “recent purchases” synchronization feature, rather than a music discovery aid like a “tweet this song” button. If Apple is getting social, it’s getting there by incremental steps. But there’s no question the Apple/Twitter combination is gaining momentum against social platform incumbent Facebook and wannabe Google.

Apple/Twitter to reshape social platforms?

Recently Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt smartly identified a “gang of four” companies leading consumer technology platforms: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. But one of Schmidt’s two other contenders for “gang” status was Twitter. (The other was PayPal.) No Microsoft on Google’s radar — oh, no, not at all. Microsoft has a pretty solid relationship with Facebook, so the social platform landscape is shaping up as a showdown among Microsoft/Facebook, Apple/Twitter and Google, with Google looking lonely.

Facebook, Google and Apple compete in various markets, but the critical areas in social media where they are trying to establish leadership for their APIs are in web navigation, communications and identity management, social and interest graphs, and mobile social networks. With the caveat that the Apple-Twitter combination is not an exclusive deal, it does seem to be aiming at the following:

  • Web navigation. Google still dominates through search, but Facebook’s ubiquitous Likes are growing as a source of traffic for content sites. Until now, Twitter has had a much smaller role, but Apple’s integration should increase Twitter use dramatically and drive up its importance in navigation. That could squeeze out Google’s Like competitor, +1, leaving it to extract needed social “signals” for search ranking from third parties. Facebook won’t let Google mine its data, and Twitter’s current generosity in licensing to Google could change.
  • Identity management. Facebook and Google are neck and neck in sign-on services to third-party sites and apps. It’s risky to over-interpret the significance of Apple and Twitter integration here. So far, Apple is not promoting Twitter as a sign-on for all apps but rather to enable tweeting and contact integration. Until that changes, Facebook and Google should hold on to their positions.
  • Mobile social networks. Google’s strength in mobile operating systems should be its best launchpad for social initiatives. Yet the company is lagging behind; for example, +1 is present in the Android app marketplace but not in Android itself. Meanwhile, there may never be a Facebook phone, but its app is hugely popular on iOS and Android. With Twitter one click away from so many Apple sharing functions, Facebook could lose ground with iPhone users. Facebook’s installed base will be tough to displace, but Apple’s new favorite mobile social network just gained new life.

Net impact? Apple is now a serious contender to set social technology standards. Google’s core position in search remains solid, but its already weak social efforts (Buzz, +1, its “layered” social approach) now look even weaker. As for Facebook, it still dominates social technology. But keep an eye on photo- and link-sharing behavior for any early indicators of pro-Twitter movement.

Question of the week

Who’s most at risk from an Apple-Twitter partnership?